Study Guide

Herman Melville Biography

  • Biography

    "There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines," the New York Times wrote a week after Herman Melville's death on 28 September 1891. "Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended. . . . he has died an absolutely forgotten man."

  • Childhood

    Herman Melville was born 1 August 1819 in New York City, the third of the eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (Maria added the "e" to the family's last name after Allan died.) Herman was born into a prominent clan whose ancestors had participated in nearly every major event in American history, from the Boston Tea Party to the Revolutionary War. His mother was from a line of Dutch settlers who arrived in the U.S. in the 1600s and settled in New York (today there is a town named Gansevoort in New York state). His father's kin were wealthy Boston merchants. Herman's family settled in New York City, where Allan Melvill owned an importing business. As one historian put it, "Young Herman's world was one of servants and dancing schools."

  • Sailor & Writer

    Upon returning to New York, the 25-year-old realized that people were very interested in his stories about life at sea. He decided to write them down, and the result was his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. The autobiographical novel appeared in 1846, after Melville had been rejected by one publisher. This publisher thought that the stories he described in the book (most of which were based on his own life) were too exciting to have actually happened. The book was a big success. In 1847, Melville followed it with Omoo, which was also a novel about life at sea and among the Polynesians.

    "We therefore recommend this 'narrative of adventures in the south seas,' as thorough entertainment—not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome,"

  • Great White Whale

    On 14 November 1851, Moby-Dick was published in the United States. (It came out a month earlier in London.) The story of Captain Ahab's fatal, monomaniacal hatred of the giant white whale that ate his leg was astonishing. The book was a simultaneous combination of an adventure story, a detailed account of the whaling industry, a cautionary tale, and a metaphor whose meaning scholars still argue over today. Literary critics were—mostly—enthusiastic. "Of all the extraordinary books from the pen of Herman Melville this is out and out the most extraordinary," a British reviewer wrote. "Few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod's whaling expedition."

  • Solitary Writer

    Melville took to the lecture circuit, which, for writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a lucrative practice. Melville, though, was never really able to make a go of it. Those who had any interest in him at all came to hear about Typee and Omoo, not his later books. Melville lectured for three years before quitting the circuit. In 1863, he was forced to sell Arrowhead to his brother, and he moved his family back to New York City. In 1866, he took a job as a customs inspector at the New York Custom House, a desk job that paid just $4 a day. He worked there for the next twenty years.

    Though he could no longer write full time, Melville never permanently put away the pen. He turned his interests to poetry instead. Melville had been deeply affected by the Civil War, especially by an 1864 visit to the front lines with his brother. In 1866, he published a book of verse entitled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. He was also laboring on an epic poem entitled Clarel, a project his wife called a "dreadful incubus"

    In addition to his professional failure, Melville's personal life was rocked by tragedy. In 1867, his eldest son Malcolm killed himself in what was either an accidental shooting or intentional suicide. In 1886, the year Melville retired from the custom house, his other son Stanwix died of tuberculosis. Yet, despite these challenges, and the fact that his career seemed to have bottomed out completely, Melville was not a tormented man. When not at work, he spent most of his time at home, playing with his grandchildren and working on writing projects which he had no intention of publishing. He read voraciously. Friends visited - sometimes.

  • Death

    In 1890, a year before Melville's death, a reporter set out to do a quasi-"where-is-he-now?" story about the once-famous writer. "If one choose to walk along East Eighteenth Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o'clock, he would see the famous writer of sea stories—stories which have never been equalled perhaps in their special line," Edward Bok wrote. "Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. 'Nonsense,' said he. 'Why, Melville is dead these many years!'"

    • Family

      Father: Allan Melvill (1782-1832)
      Mother: Maria Gansevoort Melville (1791-1872)
      Brother: Gansevoort Melville (1815-1846)
      Sister: Helen Maria Melville Griggs (1817-1888)
      Sister: Augusta Melville (1821-1876)
      Brother: Allan Melville (1823-1872)
      Sister: Catherine Gansevoort Melville Hoadley (1825-1905)
      Sister:Frances Priscilla Melville (1827-1885)
      Brother: Thomas Melville (1830-1884)

      Wife: Elizabeth Shaw Melville (1822-1906)
      Son: Malcolm Melville (1849-1867)
      Son: Stanwix Melville (1851-1886)
      Daughter: Elizabeth Melville (1853-1908)
      Daughter: Frances Melville (1855-1938)

    • Work Experience

      Bank clerk (c. 1832)
      Clerk, fur and cap store (c. 1832-1839)
      Farm hand (c. 1832-1839)
      Teacher (c. 1832-1839)
      Sailor, Merchant Marines (1839)
      Sailor, Acushnet whaler (1841-1842)
      Sailor, various ships (1842-1844)
      Writer (1845-1876)
      Customs inspector (1866-1886)

    • Major Works

      Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)
      Omoo (1847)
      Redburn (1849)
      Mardi (1849)
      White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (1850)
      Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851)
      Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852)
      "Bartleby the Scrivever"Israel Potter (1855)
      The Confidence-Man (1857)
      Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)
      Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage (1876)
      Billy Budd, Sailor (1924)